The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Potts’ bill headed to House; A1

Item among latest Senate offerings on transportation

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WINCHESTER — The Virginia Senate’s last-round budget and transportation offerings — including one from Winchester Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. —may get a cold reception in the House of Delegates this week.

The two GOP-led chambers have clashed over transportation taxes this session. But the Senate moved toward the House’s position somewhat last week after two days of deliberations.

Senators again approved a package of tax increases to fund transportation, but did it outside of the budget bill itself.

Senators want new taxes and fees to pay for about $1 billion per year in new road and mass transit funding, while delegates insist that the state use existing revenue, including billions of the state’s surplus, for transportation.

Members of the Republican majority in the House also said that including tax hikes in the budget bill is unconstitutional.

The fourth version of the Senate’s transportation finance plan, approved 29-4, retains some key elements of its predecessors, including a 6-cent per gallon tax on gasoline distributors, a hike in the tax on diesel fuel and a $10 increase in vehicle registration costs.

Higher levies for selling real estate — embodied in a controversial grantor’s tax hike — are also back.

Taken with $369 million from the general fund over two years, the plan would spend a total of $3.5 billion over four years. It levies an average of $783 million in new taxes each year.
New this time is a statewide authority for three or more cities or counties to join efforts and form a regional transportation authority that could impose a 0.5 percent local sales tax and a 1 percent hotel/motel lodging tax.

Speaker William Howell, R-Fredericksburg, decried the fuel tax in a statement last week, saying the commonwealth’s drivers are already paying too much at the pump.

“The Senate continues to support an effective 6-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, something even Governor [Timothy M.] Kaine appears to have abandoned — at least for now,” Howell says.

Kaine had been a strong supporter of the Senate’s overall approach to fixing the state’s ailing road system, but said during a radio interview last week that he’s no fan of a gas tax increase.

A separate regional authority bill by Potts, R-Winchester, was also approved and sent to the other end of the temporary Capitol.

Senate Bill 5015 would allow any three contiguous cities or counties along Interstate 81 to form a transportation authority for new projects and planning. It would have the power to levy a 1 percent sales tax.

The bill passed 29-4, with two other legislators from the I-81 corridor, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Sen. Em-mett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, voting against the measure.

The entire slate of bills could face tough sledding on Wednesday.
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said Monday it’s not yet clear what the lower chamber will be voting on when members come back to Richmond.

“Some of that stuff may not even make it out of committee,” he said.
While he hasn’t seen the fine print of the local authority bills, Gilbert said he’s likely to oppose them.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that I’m not a big fan of creating another taxing authority,” he said. “I think the senators over there are trying to find creative ways to tax people without them noticing that they’re being taxed again.”

Regardless of transportation issues, the legislature may be able to finally close the books on the current two-year budget.

“It seems like there was some movement on the ‘caboose’ budget” last week, Gilbert said. The caboose bill ties up loose ends of an expiring biennium and is usually a non-controversial item.

This year’s caboose bill became a political football when the Senate took apart the House bill and rebuilt it as an extended two-year budget for the state.

“We could finally get that taken care of,” Gilbert said.

Legislators convene at noon Wednesday.